The RAF attack Heligoland, the war in Finland

RAF Vickers Wellington bomber

The Naval Military and Air situation up to 12 noon on 7 December 1939, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval situation.

General review.

The search for the German warships which sank H.M.S. Rawalpindi did not result in any contact. The Fleet has resumed more normal dispositions, the Northern Patrol of Cruisers and Armed Merchant Cruisers has been re-established and convoys are sailing to and from Norway.

2. Casualties due to enemy mining off the East Coast continue, but have not increased, and the flow of trade has been maintained. Good progress has been made in the evolution of a suitable form of sweep for the magnetic mine.

3. The Admiral Scheer has reappeared in the South Atlantic and has attacked, and presumably sunk, two British ships about 600 miles south-east-ward of St Helena. A strong hunting group is working in the area.

4. The severe gales encountered during the past two weeks have caused some damage to units of our light forces, particularly destroyers, and the proportion of these temporarily out of action is considerably above the average.

Home Waters.

5. The greater part of the fleet returned to their bases on 1st December for fuel after their operations in search of the ships which sank H.M.S.Rawalpindi. Armed Merchant Cruises took up their positions on the Northern Patrol on the 2nd December, strong forces being disposed in support of them, and for covering the Norwegian Convoys.

6. The increase in the number of Armed Merchant Cruisers available has relieved the pressure on the 7th and 11th Cruiser Squadrons, composed of old C.and D. class cruisers, and allowed of necessary refits being undertaken. Submarine patrols are being maintained off the German, Dutch and Norwegian coasts. Two thirds of our available submarines are now operating in the North Sea.

German Mine Laying.

25. Further mines have been dropped from the aeroplanes in the Humber and Thames areas. During the night of the 5th/6th December aircraft were particularly active. The extinction of navigational lights reported in last week’s resume appears to have been effective, since patrol aircraft report that aircraft make the fullest use of the very few lights still burning, and, moreover, several mines have been dropped in positions from which they can be recovered with comparative ease. Steps have been taken to reduce the number of lights to a minimum and special precautions are taken with those left burning.

British Mine Sweeping.

27. Experiments are being pressed forward with various sweeps and detecting devices for use with magnetic mines. At least nine different devices are being investigated, several of which have already given practical proof of being capable of exploding mines.

Military Situation

Western Front

British Troops in France.

40. A British brigade, with one machine-gun company, one field company and one field ambulance attached is now on the Saar front, with forward troops holding a sector of the frontline north-east of Metz. Certain French troops in the sector have been placed under the brigade commander. It is intended that British infantry brigade groups shall go in succession to the Saar front up to 25 February, each group doing a tour of duty of about one week in reserve and two weeks in the line.


41. The Germans have been active on the Rhine-Moselle fronts where they have staged several local attacks, which have been successfully repulsed, mainly by the action of the French artillery. These attacks have usually been carried out by Stosstruppen, or storm troops; the men being carefully picked from volunteers and liberally rewarded with decorations and leave. Patrolling has also been active on the Saar front, especially between the Moselle and the Nied valleys.

Reinforcements from India.

49. Four animal transport companies leave India for France on 9 December. These companies include a total of 1700 men, 2000 mules and 500 carts. They will be followed at a later date by 600 mules, which are being destined for the two animal transport companies now being formed in Cyprus from Cypriot personnel.

Royal Air Force Operations.

Bomber Command.

Attack on Enemy Warships at Heligoland.

56. On 3rd December, shortly before noon, 24 Wellington aircraft, engaged on a reconnaissance in force into the Heligoland Bight, located a number of enemy warships lying off Heligoland. The aircraft proceeded to attack in sections of three and dropped thirty-nine 500-lb, semi-armour-piercing bombs from heights between 7,000 to 10,000 feet. One of the larger ships appeared to be hit by three bombs, while one of the smaller was closely straddled, if not actually hit by two bombs. Cloud prevented accurate observation of other attacks. Photographs were taken, but, owing to weather conditions, only indifferent results were obtained. From the depth of water in which it appears that the ships were lying it is probable that the majority of the vessels were destroyers; but it may well be that the enemy gunnery training ship Brummer, which was towed into Emden in a damaged condition on the 4th was among those hit. Heavy and fairly accurate was encountered. Our aircraft observed about 20 enemy fighters which seemed reluctant to attack; seven or eight aircraft followed the returning bomber formation without attempting to close. Only in one instance does a serious attack appear to have been made by a M.E.109, which, it is thought, was shot down. Two British aircraft were hit by, but all returned safely to their bases.

Russian – Finnish Hostilities

Situation At Sea.

69. The Russian Baltic Fleet, consisting of two battleships and five modern cruisers, is greatly superior to the two small coast defence ships of Finland. In light craft the Russians have seven modern destroyers and twenty of older types, as against the seven motor torpedo boats and several gunboats, minelaying and minesweeping craft of the Finnish Navy. Russia also has fifty-four submarines, of which twenty-three are small ones of 180 tons, to Finland’s five, one of which is a midget on Lake Ladoga. The Finns are, however, natural seamen and can be expected to handle their ships with skill and energy, although they have no officers of real war experience. In the last few years, under the guidance of a British Naval Adviser, the Finnish Navy has made considerable progress and may be considered reasonably efficient.

The efficiency of the Soviet Baltic Fleet is limited by the inexperience of its officers. Recent purges have removed over half of the Flag Officers and captains and a high proportion of the remainder. Those who remain are men of little education and lack officer-like qualities. The submarine service is, however, considered reasonably efficient.

Situation on the Land and in the Air.

73. Finland’s strength lies in the natural difficulties of the country rather than in her army of nine weak divisions, which has only recently started to replace its out-of-date artillery and is still short of tanks and aircraft. Russia, on the other hand, has an almost inexhaustible supply of manpower and equipment, her main difficulty being to get her forces to the scene of action, and to maintain them once they are there.

How long the Finns can resist is difficult to foretell. In the north they are helped by the difficulties of the country and the distance of the Soviet troops from their railheads. Moreover, the Finns are better fighters in the snow than the Russians and they are likely to destroy all available shelter as they withdraw. In the centre the Finns are, again, helped by the length and paucity of the Russian road communications and the thick woods which make it difficult for the enemy to deploy. It is in the south that they are likely to have the most difficulty in holding out, for communications are simpler and, if the lakes are frozen hard, the Russians will find it easier to bring their great superiority in tanks and artillery to bear.

Probably, however, the Finns are at the greatest disadvantage in the air. Although they have already claimed considerable successes against Soviet aircraft, there are immense numbers of the latter available. If the weather is favourable, and the Russian ability to hit targets is greater than it appears to be, an intensive bombing of the Finnish towns, factories and communications may have a decisive effect, even if the army itself is well protected from air attack by natural cover. There is still a possibility that the combination of climate, terrain and Russian inefficiency will result in a deadlock; but the odds against the Finns are very great, and it is hard to see how the Russians can fail to win if they press on as their prestige will probably demand.

TNA CAB/66/4/1

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